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Titus: Special Edition

If you're going to film a Shakespearean work, the bloody, brutal Titus Andronicus is one ballsy choice. After all, it is considered by some critics to be Shakespeare's worst play. It also was his first tragedy, and only his fifth work for the stage, which is to say that the master had not yet completely mastered the form. While believed a popular work in Shakespeare's era, it was only produced three times in the 19th century, and a 1923 performance at the Old Vic resulted in uncontrolled laughter from the audience; the play would not be performed again in England until 1955. Samuel Johnson wrote that "The barbarity of the spectacles, and the general massacre which are here exhibited, can scarcely be conceived tolerable to any audience." Fellow critic J.C. Maxwell noted "(Shakespeare) has a sense of the play as a whole, and a sense of the individual episode. It is principally in bringing the two into relation that he is still deficient." For noted Broadway director Julie Taymor, mounting a modern stage production of Titus Andronicus, and then undertaking a cinematic rendition, flies in the face of all common sense. Why not just make another version of Hamlet? (Everybody else does.) Or one of the other "safe" tragedies, like Lear, or Macbeth. Why not the popular Jacobean-era romance The Tempest, also filmed a few times in recent years? To Taymor's (enormous) credit, Titus Andronicus was the play she was bent on, and where others have failed over the years, her epic Titus succeeds wonderfully — and for several reasons. Anthony Hopkins stars as Titus Andronicus, a heroic, aging Roman general who returns to Rome after defeating the Goths. In his possession are the Goth Queen Tamora (Jessica Lange) and her four sons, but Titus lost 22 of his sons in battle, and thus a sacrifice must be made. As Tamora's eldest son is led away for ritual slaughter, the Queen vows revenge on the Roman military leader who has brought her so much suffering. And soon her opportunity comes, as the sons of the late Roman Emperor — decadent Saturninus (Alan Cumming) and noble Bassianus (James Frain) — are vying for the throne. Titus has the adoration of the people, and even could declare himself Emperor if he so wished, but he gives his support to Saturninus, who then says he will take Titus' daughter Lavinia (Laura Fraser) as his bride, even though she is betrothed to Bassianus. It is when Bassianus and Lavinia steal away in the night that Saturninus takes the Goth Queen as his bride, and her revenge plot is set into motion when her two sons capture, rape, and horrifically mutilate Lavinia while framing two of Titus' sons for the murder of Bassianus. The crafty old Titus then begins to plan his own revenge against Tamora and her offspring.

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For those who are not familiar with Shakespeare's play, the critics throughout the ages have largely been correct. Titus Andronicus is an incredibly violent tragedy, and it doesn't have the humanistic dimensions that transform and uplift such later works as Romeo and Juliet or Lear. But Taymor does not shy away from the material — rather, she embraces it fully. As an early tragedy, Titus Andronicus resembles the tragic masters of Shakespeare's past rather than his own mature work — Greek dramatists like Sophocles and Aeschlyus, whose tragedies did little to expand on human character but instead tried to convey immense suffering at the hands of indifferent gods. When Titus, wailing on the ground, declares "Let my tears staunch the earth's dry appetite / My sons' sweet blood will make it shame and blush," that's Shakespeare, but it's also Sophocles, whose famous tragic protagonists such as Oedipus would freely offer everything to the gods if it would only end his pain. By playing it straight and not apologizing for the material, Taymor succeeds by reaching back to early Shakespeare and the earliest recorded days of tragedy, and asking her actors to play the roles as such. All of the performances in Titus are solid — particularly Hopkins, who has shied away from the Bard in recent years — the more violent scenes are fittingly graphic and probably would send the nearest politician over the edge were it not Shakespeare (and thus sacrosanct), and the much-discussed art-direction wins Taymor bonus points, for again she takes an enormous risk, combining Roman and contemporary clothing, sets, vehicles, and weapons, not concerned with deciding just when Titus takes place, but instead content to let her free-form concept of "blended time" rule every scene. It would be pretentious were it not for the fact that it works. Fox's two-disc special edition of Titus features a solid anamorphic transfer (2.25:1) and audio in either DD 5.1 or Dolby 2.0 Surround. Features include a commentary by Taymor, a second commentary track with Hopkins and actor Harry J. Lennix (the only actor who also was in the stage production), a 50-minute "making-of" documentary, a 34-minute question-and-answer session with Taymor at Columbia University, a gallery of costume sketches, a brief segment on the special effects with supervisor Kyle Cooper, two articles from American Cinematographer magazine, and six trailers and TV spots. If you're a Shakespeare buff, you'll want to have this one in your collection.

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